Ton district on the south coast of Issyk-Kul lake, the gem of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, is the home of a unique craft organisation Altyn Oymok (‘Golden thimble’ in Kygyz). For their felt and leather products, the artisans have earned respect not only from people in Kyrgyz Republic but far beyond its borders. Janyl Baisheva, founder and director of Altyn Oymok, shares her story and and the story of her unique company.
After the collapse of Soviet Union, many people in our countries were left unemployed; a long crisis began. In order to survive, we began to unite. We founded our organisation, Altyn Oymok, in 1996. At that difficult period of time, Dinara Chochunbayeva* came to visit us. She told us how we could work and develop in such hard times, she advised us on how we could bring novelty to our traditional shyrdaks* by widening the size range, introducing new colours and experimenting with modern design. She also planted the idea in our minds that we could sell our products to potential customers. Dinara Chochunbayeva’s visit left us all inspired. At that time, some women in our district made the decision to work in that new direction.
*Shyrdak is a traditional Kyrgyz stitched felt rug
During the economic crisis, we had a hard time selling our products: there were simply no buyers. There were very few tourists, and even fewer customers. But we continued to work and to train all the girls and women who wanted to learn our craft. In 2004, we had a volunteer visit us, and she helped us a lot. She taught us many important and practical skills: how to present our goods to people in the right way, how to tell the story of our works and our artisans, using modern language, how to make labels and how to sell our products. This had a significant impact on our work and began to bear fruit in real life. Over time, patience, hard work and perseverance paid off.
Our organisation unites Ton region’s best craftswomen. Currently, we have over 30 members; some of them have worked with us for 19 years, and some for 11 years now.
Some of the girls work here at Altyn Oymok’s premises, but many prefer to work from home where they can build the schedule that is comfortable for them. We live in countryside, so apart from work, we all need to maintain our households and raise our children. There are around five to seven people who constantly work at the premises. Usually, we make semi-finished items here and then distribute them amongst our team members. They then take the items and finish them at home.
Over time, the quality of our products had improved significantly, and we began to increase production volumes. We started to get invited to participate in various seminars, crafts exhibitions, and traditional art festivals. At those events, we learned how to organise the business process and how to sell our products.
Now I am a coach and consultant in traditional knowledge. I started many years ago from training girls and women in Ton district. Later, I began to work as a trainer and consultant in other regions of Kyrgyz Republic. Now I also do training abroad. For instance, I recently came back from Tajikistan where we instructed several groups. Last spring, we also travelled to Sweden where I gave classes on making the traditional Kyrgyz shyrdak.
Now we receive orders from all over the globe. We work with Sweden, we sent our shyrdaks to France, New York and other parts of the world.
In 2014, we received UNESCO Award of Excellence. After receiving the certificate, we participated in the craft fair in Santa Fe twice.
At festivals and other events, we meet a lot of female designers from Bishkek. They reach out to us and come to visit. We exchange experiences with them and often collaborate for various fairs and for sales as well. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, it is now so much easier to find each other quickly.
In early 1990s, Dinara eje said to us, “Your future is in your hands”. Back then, we did not entirely believe in those words, and probably did not quite understand them, because it was the period of crisis and unemployment, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. For so many years of living in the Soviet Union, people had got used to having their fate in other people’s control. We simply could not comprehend and believe that the future could really be in our own hands. But Dinara eje inspired us, and her words turned out to be true. All these years have proven her right.
Through tush-kyizes*, shyrdaks and other products, we pass down not only our own views but also the views, values and symbols of our grandparents, our ancestors. That is why there are always flowers, animals, plants, and Umay* in our works. There is a reason why you can often find an image of a circle in our products: the circle is a symbol of harmony, of life and peace… And every mother and every woman wishes for the peace — always and everywhere.
*Tush-kyiz is a large embroidered wall hanging, traditional to the craft of Kyrgyzstan
*Umay is the goddess of fertility in Turkic mythology and Tengriism
*Dinara Chochunbayeva is a famous cultural figure of the Kyrgyz Republic. She made a significant contribution to the revival and development of the traditional culture and crafts of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Chochunbayeva is the head of the Union of Artisans of Kyrgyzstan.